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Prompt 269. What We Remember, What We Forget
Bestselling author and adventurer Jedidiah Jenkins on road trips and memory
This last week, I traveled out west. I had speaking events in Seattle and Arizona—two places I’ve only visited once before during my 15,000-mile cross-country road trip. In both places, I had dizzying sense memories, almost like time collapsing, like déjà vu. In Seattle, it was raining, gloomy and moody, and I flashed back to the most harrowing drive of my trip, as I made my way into town through a rainstorm so torrential I could barely see through the windshield, as tree branches waved wildly, as my tires caught puddles and hydroplaned from time to time. In Arizona, it happened while I was gazing out across the Mars-like landscape. Suddenly I was transported to an afternoon when I was covering a long stretch of road and found myself completely bewitched by the beauty of the desert, so much so that I didn’t stop for gas and almost got stranded in the middle of nowhere.
The experience felt a little like vertigo. The visual details were so immediate, it was like watching a film reel. But remembering who I was back then felt almost impossible, even though I committed as much of it as I could to ink. Of course, this is as it should be. The distance between my sense of self then and now is proof of living, of growth and change. But there’s also sadness in the forgetting.
What we remember and what we forget—this is a subject that fascinates me. In the last few months, I’ve been reaccessing memories from the winter of 2022, when I had my second bone marrow transplant. Large chunks of that experience never imprinted in my memory; visits from friends or family members and certain conversations we had, it’s as if they’ve been completely deleted. Yet I also experienced several hallucinations that were so vivid—that contained so much information about my fears, about how I was processing what was happening to me—that they’ve stayed with me.
I’m fascinated by what the mind protects us from, what it holds onto, and what it lets go. By how our memories morph in our retelling of them, by how they can calcify. Though we know memory is fallible, we give so much credence to it, as if remembering a moment, a person, or a place is what makes it “real.” But we aren’t living our lives as reporters, with a tape recorder and a fact checker. So rather than only focusing on if our memory matches up with someone else’s or whether it’s objectively true, I find it interesting to interrogate why we remember what we remember—and what that can reveal.
This is the subject of today’s essay and prompt by the most wonderful human, the writer and adventurer, Jedidiah Jenkins. I first became aware of Jed when I was preparing for my road trip. He had just completed his own epic journey the year before—a 7,000-mile bike ride from Oregon to Patagonia, which he posted about in little vignettes on social media, then wrote about in his bestselling memoir, To Shake the Sleeping Self. Jed came across so clear-eyed and steady-footed, whereas I myself felt so stuck. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to complete my journey, but Jed’s sense of adventure and curiosity inspired me. I admired him from afar for a long time, and I now have the privilege of calling him a friend.
Recently Jed published a new memoir, Mother, Nature, and sent me a copy. I found myself time-traveling back to my 27-year-old self, fangirling over his posts, being awed by his openness and his courage. In his new book, Jed writes about a trip he took with his wildly entertaining mother, Barbara, retracing the thousands of miles she trekked with his father in the 1970s, which was featured on the cover of National Geographic and in their trilogy of books, A Walk Across America. There are so many things I admire about Mother, Nature, the first being that it’s a master class in writing about others with both frankness and love. But it also models how to have hard conversations and how we navigate relationships with people whose beliefs are different from our own. I also love the way he studies memory.
And with that in mind, today I’m sharing this perfect little vignette from Mother, Nature on the vicissitudes of memory. May it help you delight in what you remember and also make peace with what you forget.
Some Items of Note—
Quick reminder: This month’s meeting of the Hatch is next week—that’s Sunday, November 19, from 1-2 pm ET. Holly will be hosting, and she’ll share what she considers to be the perfect micro-story and why. Mark your calendar here!
It’s with a lot of excitement (and more than a few nerves) that I’d like to share the trailer to our documentary, American Symphony, which debuts on Netflix on November 29. Take a peek and let me know what you think?
Prompt 269. A Temple to Entropy by Jedidiah Jenkins
“Your father and I were walking through Crowell, Texas, in furnace-like heat when a ‘76 Dodge pickup pulled up and a cowboy stepped out. A tall man in his sixties said, ‘We figured y’all might like a cold drink.’ Everybody in a hundred-mile radius knew who Peter and I were because we’d been featured on the front page of local newspapers. Lots of people set out to find us, driving up and down the highway. Back then there wasn’t much excitement in small towns. Anyway, that was Homer, and he let us sit in the cab of his truck in the AC and we were so grateful. Before long he invited us to come stay with him and his wife Ruby, back at their ranch here in Gilliland... which even then was hardly more than a pothole in the road.”
We turn off the pavement onto a dirt road, passing a couple of abandoned homes. A little further and we pass a stone building, regal with tall windows and castle-like arches. “Whoa, what is this?” I ask.
“That was a school. Built with FDR money in the thirties,” she says, still looking for our turn. “Right here.”
She hasn’t been here in over forty years.
We pass an old store with an awning that looks like it might have had a gas pump a thousand years ago. “Wait wait wait, stop,” she says and she flips through the National Geographic issue. She shows a picture of a smiling old man in a cowboy hat and his gray-haired wife, both holding glass-bottle Coca-Colas in the doorway of a building. “This is Homer and Ruby in front of that old gas station right there.”
“Wow.” I recognize the photo. I’ve seen it hundreds of times before in that National Geographic. I look up from the magazine and at the exact door, porch, and white cracked siding. There it is, snapped into the context of the world.
“OK now, turn left here,” she says. We pass a few houses, all empty. Mom has her hand to her mouth, squinting at each home.
“No, it wasn't this close to the road.” We drive slowly by a house standing alone in an overgrown field. The windmills watch us in the distance. The house is abandoned but it’s brick and looks sturdy. Nothing caving in. Just weeds and young trees hugging its edges.
We park and Mom opens the door, possessed. We have to step high over the tall grass and gnarled weeds. The front door is sealed with a padlock. The windows boarded up. Mom stands in the yard and puts her hands on her hips. “This is the house, I believe.”
“It’s abandoned now,” I say.
“Oh yeah, well they died years ago. This was their ranch—320 acres of wheat and cotton. They were what’s called dry ranchers, because they had no creek or river for a water source. Just rain. The cotton came up all the way to this porch. Homer and Ruby were in their mid-sixties when they met us. Never had any children. And they scraped by a hard life out here. Toughest, best people you could ever find. And they treated Peter and me like we were their family.”
On the front porch is a loose brick that has the word Texas pressed into it. “I’m taking this as a souvenir,” I say. My mom is wrapped in a blanket of rushing memories. “I think this is it. It looks different. No one's been here in a long time." Her tone is reaching for the feeling, but the coldness of this forgotten house, a temple to entropy, quiets her. She squints, as if to say it doesn’t look exactly as it should. Or does it? She battles the cruel truth that what we remember does not stay as it was, and maybe never was what you remember at all. Fact overlapping with feeling, exaggeration, and gaps filled with imagination.
I put the brick in the trunk, and we drive toward Amarillo. Mom’s hands are folded in her lap.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about something misremembered—about something that did not stay as it was, or maybe was never what you remembered at all. Explore where fact overlapped with feeling, where imagination or exaggeration filled in the gaps, and why.
If you’d like, you can post your response to today’s prompt in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals. As a reminder, we love seeing your work inspired by the Isolation Journals, but to preserve this as a community space, we request no promotion of outside projects.
Jedidiah Jenkins is a travel writer, entrepreneur, and the author of two New York Times bestsellers, To Shake the Sleeping Self and Like Streams to the Ocean. A graduate of USC and Pepperdine University School of Law, Jed began his professional career with the nonprofit Invisible Children, helping orchestrate multinational campaigns to end the use of child soldiers in Central Africa. His new book Mother, Nature tells the story of a remarkable mother-son bond and meditates on the complexities of love. You can get your copy here. Photo by Justin Bettman.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Heartbroken Friend, an installment of my advice column Dear Susu, where I tackle a question from a reader who survived cancer then lost a close friend and doesn’t know how to move on
Shaking the Sleeping Self, an interview with Jedidiah Jenkins, where we talk about speaking things into existence, rites of passage, and what will save us
On Excavating Memory, a video replay of my Studio Visit with the brilliant writer and teacher Dani Shapiro, where we talk about following the creative impulse and using the pen to make meaning of the past